Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Calamity City

A belated fifteen this week, some newcomers, plenty of old hands, and three tables of gaming pleasure.

Lords of Waterdeep made another appearance this week, and with just about everyone being familiar with how this now plays, the game was fought over, finished, and Rich crowned the Lordiest of Waterdeep Lords in very quick fashion, leaving plenty of time for game variation.

Whilst that was going on, Suburbia was skirmished over on table two, which also finished in a nice time for some end of evening shenanigans, splitting into Avalon Resistance and Kingdom Builder for the We Don't Want to Play Your Stinking Spy Game NoBoG faction.

The last table found Tzolk'in with the new and sexy expansion that allows an increased five people to squabble over the slowly rotating action spaces. It was at this last table that I found myself competing against Evil Pete, Tim, Robin and new guy Phil. Phil admitted that whilst he had played a few games, he wasn't an experienced old hand at such things. Given the players, the game and the increased crunchiness of the expansion, I suddenly felt the need to apologise in advance for the experience he was about to receive. Which turned out to be just about right.

Tzolk'in is of course a hit board game from last year with a sexy / innovative / gimmicky ( pick one ) series of cogs that see your worker placements slowly shifting place over time. In mechanics terms it's just a worker placement game that triggers actions when you remove workers as opposed to when you place them. But we know all that, what we really want to know is how does the expansion play ?

The expansion adds some variety into the up til now, pretty static setup. First off there are the new tribes which provide a player with a single subtle game changing mechanic to influence your strategy. Powers range from things like - your second worker costs 1 less food to place, to, any action space you choose is capped at a maximum cost of 3 food.

Tzolk'in - Tribes and Prophecies
Next, expanding the actions available, the start turn space gets added to with three extra slots costing 1 food each. The action available on these slots changes with the turning of the cogs, and they vary from the almost useless - pay 1 food to take 2 food - to the much more compelling, pay 2 food to immediately build a building, or pay 1 food to take a gold. With a gold bonus tech going on, things like instant reward 1 food for 2 gold are almost obscenely good to take if you have some fancy building on your mind.

Lastly calamities are added - these represent possible bonus points for meeting criteria, but also crucially penalty points for not meeting them. They also inflict changes to other parts of the board - in our game all the calamities made temple advancement much more difficult by forcing people to pay extra resources to advance a step, and in some cases forcing people to retreat a step when some resources were collected. This had a definite cooling effect on temple competition for our game.

The tribe powers you choose at the start are very cool, it's nice to have everyone start on an uneven footing, and adds spice to what might otherwise be a fairly dry opening strategy. On the other hand the powers are also very situational and can be incredibly powerful in the right circumstances, or just about useless - or even a detriment - in the wrong ones. Surely then this leads to more careful strategic play. Kind of.

The expanded three extra actions are a no brainer. With five people all trying to jam into packed action wheels, the three extra actions are something of a congestion reliever and a good addition. However. Again, it's situational. At times the actions on offer are - as Pete likes to say - about as useful as the Guernsey Tax Office. And so sometimes the cogs really are cluttered because it's highly unlikely you are going to waste placing a worker to get you a net gain of 1 food.

Calamities. They certainly change the weight of what you want to be doing or perhaps avoiding, and offer an interesting - although at times just about impossible - way of garnering victory points.

Overall for me the game was tortuous. It was cool to see the expansion in action, and nice to have a chat over a game, but game wise I spent most of my efforts in last place turn order wise, and with five players, one of whom started with five workers instead of three to place, I found myself at times boxed into a corner to get on the busy cogs, or struggling to lurch about looking for a new plan. The situational tribe powers just added random insult to injury as some were able to get good use out of powers at times, and others, well, just downright struggled. Poor Phil with his five worker start faced an uphill battle all game of feeding all those mouths AND having increased costs of 3 food per worker instead of 2, AND an increased VP penalty for failing to do so. On the one hand, five workers out of the gate is awesome. On the other hand, paying fifteen food to maintain them is horrible. And remember. Five players. Packed cogs. Your placement costs are up on what a four player game might be.

And here lies perhaps a fundamental issue. The lovely / gimmicky cogs, fixed very much into the heart of the game as they are cannot be upgraded or changed when you decide you want to do an expansion. So to a certain extent you are jamming more people in the core mechanic fixed size space. As Pete noted, five is perhaps not the sweet spot for Tzolk.

Tzolk'in with the expansion is decidely not for beginners. Or the feint of heart. Personally I have some serious reservations about whether a fifth player actually works that well. Or that everything balances out well. Or that you can't get some seriously game cooling perfect storms popping up. I was also unimpressed with our final scoring which didn't seem to be particular clever as just mostly opportunistic. Blah.

Pete also confessed to having struggled for the first time ever playing the game - he's a big fan - and not entirely enjoying his experience.

As for Phil - who managed to net himself 10 negative points in one scoring round - I assured him that his gaming experience were he to return would only get better from hereon in, and only half jokingly, that next time he should try something fun, like Resistance.

As it was, Robin won the game with some decent in game scoring and a respectable end bonus, Pete came second with some extremely last minute bonus scoring - he had scored practically zip all game, which left Tim languishing in third and me and Phil way off the pace.

If you are a fan of Tzolk'in, I think you will like the variation the expansion brings. There are some nice ideas and cool things going on. Does it lose some elegance ? Yes. Can it fall off the rails a bit ? I think so. Is it really designed to fit five people in ? Probably not. But I think a fan will skip those "minor" quibbles and embrace the new challenges that it offers.

Resistance good guys won again. I think the bad guys are just phoning it in at this point. Shocking. There needs to be some serious spy training undertaken to shore up the score tally.


Mr Bond said...

Nice. I am often wary of expansions that add a fifth player. Chaos in the Old World did it well. Ys is a mess with five. And has anyone actually ever played Settlers with six players?!

Minitrue said...

I think the game is still cool, but personally, I think the expansion has put the nail in the coffin for this game for me. I can't see myself returning to it in any shape or form - I've had enough of watching action spaces fill up, get shouldered out of key synergies that let you run away with it and yada.

It's just too long ( for what you are doing ) and too unfun for me - particularly with five. I think something like Hansa Teutonica does it quicker in more elegant fashion.

Peter Chinkin said...

I really liked the addition of asymmetry to the player abilities. What the addition of a fifth player along with the prophecies, tribes and quick action spaces did, above all, is turn this into a true heavy weight game. There is a lot of information and a huge range of possibilities. Add in that you often won't know what is going to be possible until your turn and it makes for a very complex and taxing experience.

If I play with five again, I will only add in the quick actions and nothing else. Would like to see how the other bits play with three or four though.